Required Listening – Hadestown

Antonia Gentile writes about the 2017 cast recording of Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell. 

“After reading “Mythos – The Greek Myths Retold” by Stephen Fry, I have become a little obssessed with Greek Myth and how stories are so often revisted and reinvented for a new audience. Probably one of the most revisted of all Greek Myths is the fateful story of Orpheus and Eurydice which has been adapted into countless operas, ballets, films and books.

Fellow MusicalTalk presenter Michael Gordon Shapiro recently pointed me in the direction of the one of the most recent adaptions of this myth – the musical Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell which despite being set in a 1920’s prohibition era dreamworld, is very much a retelling for the modern age.

Hadestown might have been advertised as a “folk opera” but there are a lot of traditional musical theatre influences at play. The musical evolved from a concept album, not unlike Jesus Christ Superstar and uses popular music to tell a story, like Hamilton.

Structually, there might be much about the musical which feels familiar, but there is much about the score which feels incredibly fresh and new. I particularly enjoy the jazz infused numbers, such as “Way Down Hadestown

What IS new about this musical is the angle from which the Orpheus myth is told. Those familiar with the myth need not worry, the musical is definitely true to the original story, but there are some incredibly resonant themes.

One of the themes brought to the forefront of this version is the theme of fear. The best example of this is probably the song “Why We Build the Wall” sung by Hades. In this version, Hades is a powerful business owner who exploits his workers and uses fear to motivate them to “build a wall” to keep the enemy out –  in this instance the “enemy” is described as those “who have want we have got”.

Despite the song being written before Donald Trump, the refugee crisis, or even the UK taking back control of it’s borders via Brexit, I couldn’t help but think about our current political situation and how the song has now taken on a deeper meaning due to recent politics.

Orpheus is able to resist the pull of Hades and doesn’t believe that people are better off working in Hadestown. Unfortunately, his lover Eurydice is a victim of Hades’ rhetoric – fearing the possibly of poverty, she makes the decision to go to Hadestown.

I appreciate that Mitchell has attempted to flesh out characters and gives Eurydice more agency – she isn’t a passive character taken to the underworld against her will, she makes the choice to go to the underworld because she believes she will find a better life. It turns out to be the wrong decision, but we understand why she makes that choice.

In the song “When the Chips are Down” the fates even ask us what we would do if we were in Eurydice’s shoes.

Fear may be an overriding theme in Hadestown, but the theme we are left with is one of hope. In “Road to Hell II” Persephone’s arrival to the world above ground signals that Spring has come again.

Traditionally, Spring signals a new beginnings and a new beginning is what renews our hope in the potential for things to be better.

I think what makes this retelling a successful one is that despite knowing how the story ends, you can’t help but hope this time the outcome will be different. Perhaps this is the whole point we continue to retell stories time and time again – it’s about hope.”

Hadestown runs at the National Theatre until the 26th January 2019.